A big misconception is that power chords are only for beginner guitarists and that they’re something you grow out of. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Power chords are immensely… well, powerful!
They’re great for driving a song and creating a solid harmonic foundation. Once you learn how to play and use power chords, they’ll be a useful tool for you in your guitar journey, regardless of the genre you play.
We’ll start by covering the basics of what a power chord is, then move on to the fun part: playing them!
What are power chords?
Power chords are rhythm guitarists' bread and butter.
- It’s a type of chord that’s made up of only two notes.
- You can play them using only two or three fingers.
- They’re easy to play because you keep your fingers in the same position for every single chord.
- You just move the shape up and down the neck.
The reason they work so well in pretty much any genre or style of music is because of their neutrality.
Are power chords major or minor?
Chords stem from a scale or key. A scale has seven notes, and you build chords by selecting certain notes from that scale.
The power chord is built using only the root note and the 5th of the scale.
- What determines a chord's quality (major or minor) is the 3rd note of a scale.
- Because the power chord doesn’t have a 3rd, it’s neither major nor minor.
- It gives a lead melody a lot of flexibility to move between major and minor scales.
How to play power chords
Here’s an A power chord
It’s very simple, as you can see. To give you a better overview of what you’re playing and what root and 5th mean in practical terms, here’s a basic major scale.
You see which notes of the scale are used for this power chord.
- You’ll notice that there are two root notes (1).
- The 1 on the D string is an octave up (same note but higher in pitch)
- It’s your choice to include the octave or not – adding it will make your power chords sound a little fuller.
Notice the chord name – A5. This refers to the root note and the 5th.
- If the chord says “A” only, you know it’s an A major chord with the 3rd.
- The name of the chord doesn’t change if you play the octave or not.
You can also play the power chord starting on the A String, like so:
Naturally, the root note is not on the 5th fret of the A string here, making it a D5 chord.
- The fret your index finger lands on will always determine what power chord it is.
- Make sure to study the note name of each fret on the E and A strings so you easily know what chord you’re playing.
Take a look at this blog post on learning the names of each fret across the guitar neck.
4 tips for playing a power chord
Before we move on to some exercises, we’ll give you some pointers on how make your power chords sound better.
- Use distortion! You don’t need a lot, but a power chord deserves a bit of crunch. If you’re using plugins, pedals, or an amp with gain or overdrive settings, boost the distortion a little.
- Keep your index finger straight. For more control over chord movements, try keeping your index finger relatively straight.
- Mute strings you’re not playing. Use the index finger to ever so slightly rest against the strings you’re not playing to mute them.
- Up strokes and down strokes have different sounds and feel. For a more aggressive/energetic sound, play only down strokes. For more rhythmic or accented parts, use both.
Down stroke power chords
In this exercise, play only down strokes. This will help give the riff some attitude. 🤘
- Don’t start too fast! Go slower until you get it sounding tight – make sure you only pick the two strings you’re fretting.
- This style of playing is different than strumming chords on an acoustic guitar.
- Keep your arm relatively steady and let most of the movement come from the wrist.
- With that said, you shouldn’t lock your arm into place. Be relaxed and flexible.
The chords you’re playing in this exercise are G5, C5, D5, and A5. Repeat the pattern until it comes you find a good feeling for it.
Next, try doing the same chord progression but you add the octave with your pinky finger.
Here we’ll extend the range of the chords a bit. The purpose is for you to get used to keeping the same chord shape and finger spacing as you're moving up and down the neck.
- When you’re making larger leaps on the fretboard there will be some string-sliding noises.
- String noises are a stylistic choice. Sometimes they work well with the song, but other times they can be distracting.
If you’re playing quarter notes, you can add an eighth note of open strings as you move to the next chord. This creates a little attitude, interest, and movement in this chord progression.
You don’t want to open strings to ring out, so play them quickly between the two chords.
You may have noticed that these chords we’ve just been playing are the power chord version of Green Day’s Holiday:
The song sounds better with some major and minor quality to the chords, but the point here is to practice moving power chords.
Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit is one of the most famous songs of all time. The intro is instantly recognizable but what makes it special isn’t just the power chords Cobain is playing, it’s the ghost notes in between the chords.
Smells Like Teen Spirit:
- The ghost notes are the “chicka-chicka” we hear.
- To create this sound use your fretting hand to cover all the strings to mute them.
- At the same time, you hit all strings with your pick.
- Hit it fast so you don't hear any individual strings.
This entire riff combines both down strokes and up strokes.
Two essential parts of power chords are accented hits and palm muting.
- The accents give more power to a beat or a part of a song that needs more punch.
- A palm-muted note is often repeated in between the accented hits, although not always.
In the previous example, the muting happened when you rest your fretting hand across all strings.
This time we’ll use the palm of your picking hand to mute the strings a little – we still want to hear the note we’re playing, just a little more subdued.
Play this note while gently resting your palm on the string as you're picking it.
- Try to create a ‘chugging’ sound – you’ll need some distortion for this.
- It might be a little tricky to find the exact spot on the string to rest your palm, but once you find it, you’ll know.
Now we’re gonna keep up the chugging but add an unmuted power chord into the mix!
- Raise your palm as you hit the power chord, then bring it back down for the single notes.
- While palm muting, it’s important that the note is still heard – it shouldn’t be completely muted.
- The trick is to lightly rest the palm on the strings you’re muting don’t press into them too much.
Now that you’ve become familiar with palm muting, we guarantee you’ll hear this technique and style of playing everywhere.
Once you’re comfortable moving power chords around, and doing some palm muting, it’s time to add some single notes in between power chords.
One of the best songs to demonstrate this, is Paranoid by Black Sabbath:
- This song has power chords, a melodic line in the riff, palm muting, and some pretty fast-moving changes.
- The best way to learn a song is always to first try to figure it out by ear. But if that’s too hard for you right now, you can quickly find good tabs online.
The power chord conclusion
There’s so much more to talk about when it comes to power chords and how to use them in your music. They’re really at the heart of guitar playing – from a beginner learning their first riff, to rock gods playing for thousands of fans, power chords are the great unifier!
- If you want to learn how to get them most out of your power chords and more, take a look at our guided online guitar lessons.
- Our Beginner Learning Pathway will show you exactly what to work on so you can become a rock-solid rhythm guitarist and get ready to start soloing.
- With courses for every step of your guitar journey, personalized video feedback on your playing, and unlimited learning support from pro guitarists, we’re with you every step of the way.
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